Finding Success in 'Digital' Dhaka, Bangladesh
Area of Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh

Area of Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh

In a country with a 21% internet penetration rate where the average citizen makes roughly US $3.26 per day, is it prudent to sell avocados for the equivalent of $7 online?

One Wharton School of Business educated entrepreneur has found that it is indeed.

Waseem Alim, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and Silicon Valley veteran, recently moved back to his native Bangladesh and co-founded Chaldal, a Dhaka-based e-commerce company. The online platform provides users with the ability to get various necessities of everyday life – groceries, baby care, cosmetics and more – delivered directly to their house or office.

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Frontera’s Baldwin Berges recently spoke with Waseem about how a Dhaka-raised individual ends up at an Ivy League business school in Philadelphia, heads to Silicon Valley to build a product used by over 500,000 people, then decides to leave his career to move back to Bangladesh and co-found an upstart e-commerce business.

While Chaldal is competing in certain segments against Bangladesh’s ‘big names’ in horizontal e-tailing like HotOfferBD and ClickBD, they are carving out a decidedly more niche vertical by focusing on fast and efficient home delivery of daily essentials. Such a service undoubtedly lends itself more to the luxury spectrum in Bangladesh, but a growing number of entrepreneurs forming new businesses catering to this consumer class speaks to its exceptional potential.

Although still in nascent stages across the Indian subcontinent, grocery e-tailing has started gaining serious traction across the region in recent years. Most notably, India’s large online grocer, Big Basket, just secured a $32 million funding round in September 2014. Local mobile apps modeled on the likes of Instacart and Postmates, are also beginning to crop up across south Asia.

Bangladesh all too often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons such as ferries sinkingfactories collapsing, or political instability. But what isn’t talked about is that the economy – set to register growth in excess of 6% in 2015 – exhibits many encouraging signs driven in large part by the country’s positioning as the world’s second-largest ready-made garments exporter, and complimented by an expanding volume of foreign remittances. Recent government efforts in courting investors to diversify its manufacturing base into low-end electronics and automobile assembly could provide a further boost.

Most importantly though, as Kevin learned recently on his trip to the Digital World Tech Conference in Dhaka, the country has a growing technology scene that is seeing an infusion of investment from Silicon Valley and venture capital firms worldwide.

Yet Dhaka’s chaotic roads with seemingly endless traffic logjams coupled with frequent power supply interruptions are taking a toll on the country’s GDP, reducing growth by an estimated 1-2% annually.

But it can also be said that these structural problems allow businesses such as Chaldal to thrive, while also adding convenience to the lives of the growing consumer class in Dhaka.

The country might still be ‘off the radar’ for many – even the ubiquitous German start-up maker Rocket Internet only has one company  (FoodPanda) here. But the future is bright for Bangladesh’s burgeoning tech scene. With the world’s eighth largest population, an evolving economy, an engaged diaspora, and other basic ingredients needed to build the next South Asian tech hub all firmly present, success stories like Waseem’s will surely be multiplied in the very near future.

Here’s a nice video overview of other facets of Bangladesh’s tech scene.

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